Not everybody finds dead birds beautiful. In fact, it’s safe to say that many people might see more sorrow than beauty in a dead animal. Sophie Butcher would disagree. “They’re beautiful and sad,” she said about the birds in her photographs, featured on April 25th at Kings County Brewing Collective (KCBC) in Bushwick, Brooklyn. The show, Bird Alert, presented photography from Butcher and work from another artist, Annie Novak, who were both inspired by Project Safe Flight, an initiative with the New York City chapter of the National Audubon Society. Audubon is a national non-profit organization dedicated to “protect[ing] birds and the places they need.” The NYC chapter is one of over 500 in the United States. Each chapter engages in a wide variety of activism to advocate for birds and wildlife in their area. Butcher, Novak, and the NYC Audubon all shared one common thread: They agreed on the beauty of birds, dead and alive. Bird Alert was a way to celebrate this beauty through photography, illustrations, information, activism, and of course, a drink or two.
Pete Yengel, brewmaster and co-owner at King’s County Brewing Collective, is an avid Birder. A few ago, he reached out to the NYC Audubon and proposed “a special brew [called] Safe Flight IPA,” which is celebrating its second year on the menu at KCBC. King’s County is a typical Brooklyn brewing company in the best possible way—it has a friendly atmosphere, simple décor, and good beer. The perfect place to showcase Butcher and Novak’s art.
The show featured a small but meaningful mix of photography and graphic novel-style illustrations. The photographs were a mix of delicate, poignant sadness and vibrant beauty. Colorful plumage but broken, lifeless bodies. At the panel following the exhibition, Butcher described documenting dead birds as a teenager, fascinated by their “precious, fragile sort of beauty.” Novak’s work was, as most graphic novels are, meant to tell a story. The “arc” of her story “is about a simple fact,” Novak said. “Birds at large—but especially migratory birds—are under a threat.” An illustrator, author, and avid birder, Annie’s current project is inspired by her observations of birds caught in the lights at the 9/11 Tribute. As she wrote in a 2018 article, it is a symbol of New York’s “unbreakable spirit [and] a beacon in more ways than one.”
Both Butcher’s photo journal and Novak’s story focus on migratory birds, and both were made possible by NYC Audubon’s Project Safe Flight.
Fall and spring are travel-heavy seasons for aviary populations all around the world, and in high-trafficked areas like New York, migration can be deadly. Urban areas pose a specific combination of threats to birds, but we can narrow them down: Light and glass. Large structures illuminated with bright lights can be disorienting to birds, even enthralling, and cause them to crash into buildings. Birds are also unable to detect solid glass, so will either attempt to fly straight through glass surfaces like windows, or land upon reflective surfaces composed of glass like greenhouses. “They’re finding themselves in this sort of maze of mirrors,” said Kaitlyn Parkins, a Conservation Biologist at the New York City chapter of the National Audubon Society. Project Safe Flight (PSF) is a powerful local example of nationwide efforts made every day by the Audubon Society community.
According to Parkins, PSF was started “by an intrepid band of volunteers in 1997 who had noticed little dead bird bodies littered by the sides of buildings in Manhattan.” PSF is an NYC Audubon project dedicated to protecting migratory land birds through rescuing injured birds, collecting dead birds, and continuing advocacy for birds who are still flying. While birds are injured and killed every day due to unsafe condition, migration seasons are their busiest times each year. New York City is a part of The Atlantic Flyway, a route used by a variety of water and land fowl during their migration. PSF allows Audubon members, volunteers, and community scientists to help birds migrate safely, as well as collect more data on endangered and at-risk species like the Golden Warbler. This songbird moves from Central and South America to the United States via the Atlantic Flyway each season, and its population has declined 66% in the past 50 years. Other “priority birds” on the Atlantic Flyway include the Roseate Spoonbill, a State-designated threatened species protected by Florida’s Endangered and Threatened Species Rule, the Piping Plover, an endangered species under the Federal Endangered Species Act, and the Swallow-Tailed Kite, a State-designated endangered species in South Carolina.
Project Safe Flight volunteers wake up as early as 5 A.M. to collect bodies of birds around the city. “I love it,” said Alex Israel, “I mean, as much as you can love finding dead birds on the side of the road.” This spring will be Israel’s second season with PSF. “It was never chance that brought me here,” she said. “I’m a young millennial. The question wasn’t, ‘am I going to get involved,’ it was, ‘how am I going to get involved,’ you know?”
Israel’s involvement, as well as every volunteer involved with PSF, makes a world of difference. Many of the specimens PSF volunteers collect are sent to Paul Sweet, an Ornithologist at the Museum of Natural History, and are added to the Museum’s archives. According to Sweet, “it helps [to] maintain a chronological series of many phenomena we’re experiencing now.” An example, he explained, is global warming. An extensive examination of over 70,0000 specimens in the collection found that the ornithology of birds has changed over the past forty years. “Because of climate change, birds got longer and [their] wings got longer.” The data PSF has provided will allow scientists and other activists to use information to identify and track patterns and long-term trends, pinpoint changes, and “consult for various [other] projects.” Novack agrees. “The more we understand the topic,” she said, “the more we can advocate for solutions that actually work.”
Another project for the NYC chapter focuses on cultivating change with policy. NYC Audubon is pushing for “legislation at any and all levels that require buildings to be bird friendly.” “There are so many factors that can go into making a building [bird] friendly…. Unfortunately, it’s not a cut-and-dry thing,” Parkins said. Landscaping, lighting, architecture, building composition, glass, weather, and myriad of other factors impact whether or not a building may or may not be a threat to birds.
Building design, as well as additions or changes to glass in current buildings, is something that will have a huge effect on collision deaths and the overall population of migratory birds that travel through NYC. While Parkins recalled a few specific cases where building owners have been receptive to suggested changes, “going building by building, we can’t make all the changes we need,” Parkins explained. “We need legislative change.” She’s right: While the architecture community is slowly moving towards greener, more bird-friendly buildings, it has been a slow and arduous process.
Parkins mentions legislation at both the state and federal levels. “Legislation at federal level would just be for federal buildings,” she explained, “and there is a City Council bill that would require all new buildings and retro-fitted buildings to have bird-friendly glass or glazing.” She knows their work is cut-out for them. “We have a long battle to get it passed… but the interest [in it] is amazing.” Amendments to any bills and legislation will hopefully expand to include more green infrastructure and greenrooms, as well as a bigger focus on habitat laws, urban light pollution, and light pollution at large. “New York should be leading the way,” according to Parkins, “if we want to say we’re progressive.” But progress can be achieved on personal levels as well.
For the more artistically inclined, Novak suggested a few more creative ideas. Decorating with puff paint and tempera paint on windows (make sure they’re washable!) can be a colorful, fun solution that saves little birdie lives. The American Bird Conservatory has ABC bird tape, which is both affordable and easy, along with some other options. Since the majority of collisions happen on the first four or five floors of a building, securing tape on windows in higher levels might not be necessary. What is necessary, though, is some type of action. “I had no idea that thousands of [birds] were getting killed. More people need to know about this,” said Butcher. Her photography, she hopes, can serve as a conversation-starter surrounding Project Safe Flight and the causes the Audubon fights for. “It’s New York, it’s nature, it’s people bonding with other people in surprising ways,” she said. “Just imagine if we can get everyone involved.”
For more information on how to help, visit http://www.nycaudubon.org/take-action.
Did you know that there are several different Audubon organizations, all dedicated to protecting birds? Meet Audubon New York, the state office of the National Audubon Society, at Go Green! BK Festival on June 1st.
You can also meet Annie Novak on June 1st at Go Green! BK Festival. She will represent Eagle Street Rooftop Farm, an internationally acclaimed green roof and commercially operated vegetable farm on top of a a three story warehouse in Brooklyn.
* Reprinted from the Go Green! BK Hub, the 24/7 representation of the annual Go Green! BK Festival.